41st Telluride Bluegrass: Sam Bush Celebrates #40

Louis XIV sat on the throne of France for 72 years (1643 – 1715).

“King” Sam Bush

“King” Sam Bush, by Tim Benko

Queen Victoria ruled the British empire for 63 years, 216 days.

Elizabeth II, also of the United Kingdom, is hot on Victoria’s heels, having ruled 62 years and counting since February 1952.

The longest reign among the Emperors of Rome was that of Constantine the Great, a mere 31 years.

Locally, for an example of regal days in power, Sam Bush has no peer. And, at Telluride Bluegrass #41, Sam celebrates his 40th anniversary on the throne – rather,  on the Main Stage.

Sam Bush, by Tim Benko

Sam Bush, by Tim Benko

Starting opening day, Thursday, June 19, Sam Bush (& friends) will be everywhere you want to be. The robust Festival schedule is a list of sets waiting to be enhanced by guest appearances from His Highness.

And that is as it should be.

Sam grew up (professionally) with Planet Bluegrass: the history of the Festival from tie-dyed funky to world-class hip is the history of the performer, and the musician, like the event, shows no signs of loosing ground.

Sam & friends, by Tim Benko

Sam & friends, by Tim Benko

One of Sam’s earliest and perhaps his most famous band, the genre-bending New Grass Revival, visited town for the first time in 1974, at the 2nd annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival:

“I remember J.B. and Helen Matteotti, John “Picker” Herndon, Kooster McAllister, and Fred Shellman, the Festival’s organizers. They were all as excited as little kids about their event and about us. They had first seen NGR at the National Picking Contest in Winfield, Kansas. It became their dream to have our band at their event. Once in Telluride, ‘hospitable’ would be a light term for how they treated us. They would have given us the shirts off their backs. Instead, they gave us their smiles and their hearts. Their loving spirit spilled out into the audience. We were long-haired hippie guys trying to play our special brand of music. At other bluegrass festivals, promoters threw us up on stage at one o’clock in the morning and the older folks in lawn chairs would pack up when we came on. But Telluride was different. I don’t recall ever being treated so warmly. There may have been just over 1,000 people in the crowd, who let us know how much they liked our kind of weird. The weirder we were, the more they danced and cheered. Telluride seemed up for anything. Since then, I’ve grown up with the Bluegrass Festival. I’ve watched it grow and change as I have grown and changed. But one thing remains the same: In Telluride, the crowd is still up for anything.” 

Sam Bush, King of Telluride, by Tim Benko

Sam Bush, King of Telluride, by Tim Benko

Sam’s trademark instrumental virtuosity on the mandolin coupled with heartfelt vocals, articulate arrangements and a raconteur’s tongue-in-cheek sensibility won the day for him and his bandmates. And some things never change. Currently, the Sam Bush Band is scheduled to perform Saturday night, 8 – 10 p.m.; his Telluride House Band closes the Festival Sunday night, 8:45 – 10:45 p.m., a must-see set including Bela, Jerry, Edgar, Bryan, Stuart and special guests Alison Krauss & Del McCoury.

Once upon a long time ago, Sam Bush, King of Telluride, stepped right into Bill Monroe’s highly polished shoes. He is the one emerging legends such as Chris Thile, Wayne Benson, Shawn Lane, Matt Flinner, Ronnie McCoury, and Mike Marshall look up to. The one who, with the aforementioned New Grass Revival, planted the seeds for bands such as Leftover Salmon, Nickel Creek, and Yonder Mountain String Band to name just a few successors.

Sam fiddling, while Telluride burns, by Tim Benko

Sam fiddling, while Telluride burns, by Tim Benko

Sam has played with just about everyone worth playing with, from Emmylou Harris (he joined her Nash Ramblers in 1989 just after New Grass Revival shut down) and Bela Fleck to Charlie Haden, Lyle Lovett, and Garth Brooks, not to mention his heroes, Monroe, Doc Watson and Earl Scruggs.

As a session musician, Sam has been featured on recordings by artists as diverse as Alabama, Guy Clark, Dolly Parton, Alison Krauss and Neil Diamond. Although he is best known for jaw-dropping skills on the mandolin, Sam the Man is also a Grammy Award-winning vocalist.

Sam, with Hot Rize, 2010 Clint Viebrock photo

Sam, with Hot Rize, 2010
Clint Viebrock photo

Sam Bush was hardwired to do the voodoo that he does: his entire family was musical. Sam’s mother’s father was a fiddler. His mom played rhythm guitar. His dad still plays fiddle and mandolin. Sam’s sister Clara was a guitar player and when she and his other sister Janet played folk duets at barn dances and square dances, the young prodigy played strings right alongside. Sam’s dad taught his offspring about harmony and both his parents jammed with their kids. By the time Sam graduated high school, he had already earned three national junior fiddle championships and a reputation for being a hot young mandolin player.

Once he hit the big time, Sam never looked back. He dressed like he dressed, played what he played. For him, it was – and is – all about the show. On stage, the music takes over and there is just no stopping him.

Recent accolades include Americana Music Association, Lifetime Achievement, Instrumentalist and a tribute by the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame.

All hail the King.

To learn more about Sam’s life and work and what to expect at Sam’s 40th anniversary party, click the “play” button and eavesdrop on our chat.

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